Oxy and the L.A. Times
The Los Angeles Times published this letter from current Board of Trustees chair Chris Calkins and immediate past chair John Farmer on March 23.
The Times published a retraction on March 15 acknowledging that a front-page story on Dec. 7 falsely accused Occidental College of covering up 27 cases of sexual assault in 2012.
We appreciate the paper setting the record straight. But the falsehood—spread via the Associated Press and amplified through social media—has caused lasting harm to Occidental's reputation that cannot be undone with an "editor's note" on Page A4.
Compounding matters, The Times has failed to report the substantial steps Occidental has taken to deal with sexual misconduct. We have revamped our sexual-assault policy, hired a former prosecutor as Title IX coordinator, recruited a survivor advocate, installed a 24-hour hotline, asked experts to critique our procedures and increased mandatory preventive education for all students.
These reforms go beyond measures instituted at many other prestigious colleges and universities that have encountered similar issues of sexual assault. But reading The Times, you would never know it.
Given the level of public interest in the case of fired Los Angeles Times reporter Jason Felch, Occidental College released the following statement March 17.
In explaining the reasons for his March 14 firing, former Los Angeles Times reporter Jason Felch issued a statement to the Associated Press that contained inaccurate and misleading information about his coverage of Occidental College. We want to set the record straight with the facts about Felch's pattern of unethical and erroneous reporting.
In a Sept. 19 Times story, Felch falsely reported that a settlement between Occidental and 10 survivors of alleged sexual assaults prevented them from participating in government investigations and proceedings on campus. The Times did not publish a correction. Rather, Felch buried a clarification in a Sept. 21 story, blaming the error on “some faculty” members.
In October, after conducting an extensive internal review, Occidental publicly disclosed errors in its Clery Act reporting for 2010 and 2011. Under the federal Clery Act, colleges and universities are required to keep and disclose information each year about crimes, including reports of sex offenses that occur on or near campus property.
After the College issued its corrected Clery statistics, Felch continued asking questions about the reporting of sexual assault allegations at the College.
On Oct. 18, Occidental spokesman Jim Tranquada emailed Felch: “If you have information on specific reports that you believe haven't been included in Occidental's Clery reports, please let us know so we can check and see if that's the case.” Felch never responded.
On Nov. 21, Felch emailed Tranquada to request an interview with three Occidental administrators to discuss “detailed, specific allegations about each of them.” Felch added: “For fairness’ sake, I would like their points of view/response included. My deadline is tomorrow at noon.” Tranquada informed Felch that the administrators were traveling overseas or declined to comment on such short notice. Although his story didn't run for more than two weeks, Felch never renewed his request.
On Dec. 7, The Times published a front-page story by Felch under the headline “College shelved more assault reports; Occidental failed to disclose at least 27 other sex crimes, a Times review finds.” Citing “documents, interviews and a Times review of two confidential federal complaints against the school,” the story purported to expose a cover-up of the College’s 2012 Clery numbers. It concluded that the underreporting of cases at Occidental was "far more extensive than campus officials have acknowledged."
This was the first time the College had learned of the supposed 27 unreported cases alleged by Felch, who has claimed that “Occidental declined to comment on the allegations.” Prior to publication, Felch never asked Occidental directly about the premise of his story or told the College about his findings regarding the 27 alleged cases. This failure constituted a breach of basic journalistic ethics, which require reporters to provide subjects of their stories the opportunity to respond to specific allegations.
On Dec. 7, The Associated Press rewrote the story for the national wire repeating Felch's allegation. Unlike Felch, the AP reporter asked Occidental to respond to the specific allegation of 27 unreported cases. The AP story reported: “Jim Tranquada, a spokesman for Occidental College, told The Associated Press on Saturday that the college has not seen the confidential reports [cited by Felch] and doesn’t know which cases are involved.”
Occidental took the allegations seriously and conducted a focused internal review to find the 27 “sex crimes” that The Times reported the College had failed to disclose as required by law.
In the days following the Dec. 7 story, Occidental spokesman Tranquada protested to Felch that the article was unfair and asked for specific documentation supporting The Times’ finding of the supposed 27 unreported cases. Felch refused to explain and then told Tranquada: “I think you’re lying and I’m going to prove it.”
On Dec. 9, Felch repeated his allegation on a KPCC radio program. Felch said: "We're still trying to get to the bottom of it in part because Occidental isn't telling us everything about what happened … What our report shows is that even after disclosing some mistakes, there are still serious problems going on.”
On Dec. 13, The Times published a correction to the Dec. 7 story. Felch erroneously reported that Occidental’s president had met with an alleged assailant. The president is not involved in the adjudication of Title IX cases. The meeting never took place.
On Jan. 20, Occidental retained the strategic communications firm G.F.Bunting+Co. as consultants. The president of the firm, Glenn F. Bunting, was an editor and reporter at The Times for 23 years. One of the firm’s executives, Ralph Frammolino, was a Times reporter for 25 years, and had written stories and a book with Felch. (Because of his pre-existing business relationship with Felch, Frammolino never talked to him about the issue of the 27 cases and did not participate in any meetings with The Times.)
Working together with the College, G.F.Bunting+Co. documented the fact that Felch’s assertion that the College “shelved” 27 sexual assaults in 2012 was factually incorrect. The method Felch used to calculate the number 27 reflected a basic misunderstanding of the College’s reporting obligations under Clery.
On March 10, Bunting met with Times editor Davan Maharaj to present the firm’s findings. Bunting asked The Times to retract the Dec. 7 story.
On March 13, Bunting met again with Maharaj at the editor’s request to review documents showing that that entire premise of the Dec. 7 story was fundamentally flawed.
On March 15, The Times published an editor’s note retracting the Dec. 7 story, which acknowledged Felch’s serious errors and that he had been fired because of “an inappropriate relationship” with a source. Occidental had no prior knowledge of the inappropriate relationship.